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Supreme Court Rejects S.E.C.’s Administrative Tribunals

Supreme Court Rejects S.E.C.’s Administrative Tribunals

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The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected one of the primary ways the Securities and Exchange Commission enforces laws against securities fraud.

The agency, like other regulators, brings some enforcement actions in internal tribunals rather than in federal courts. The S.E.C.’s practice, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a six-justice majority in a decision divided along ideological lines, violated the right to a jury trial.

“A defendant facing a fraud suit has the right to be tried by a jury of his peers before a neutral adjudicator,” the chief justice wrote.

The case is one of several challenges this term to the power of administrative agencies, long a target of the conservative legal movement. The court last month rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the way the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is funded. In January, it heard arguments in a pair of challenges to the Chevron doctrine, a foundational part of American law that requires courts to defer to the expertise of federal agencies when it comes to interpreting laws that Congress left ambiguous. (That case has not been decided.)

A central question in the new case, Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy, No. 22-859, was whether the administrative tribunals violate the right to a jury trial guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment in “suits at common law.”

Lawyers for the agency said juries were not required in administrative proceedings because they were not private lawsuits but part of an effort to protect the rights of the public generally. They added that agency adjudications without juries are commonplace, with two dozen agencies having the authority to impose penalties in administrative proceedings.

The case concerned George Jarkesy, a hedge fund manager accused of misleading investors. The S.E.C. brought a civil enforcement proceeding against him before an administrative law judge employed by the agency, who ruled against Mr. Jarkesy. After an internal appeal, the agency eventually ordered him and his company to pay a civil penalty of $300,000 and to disgorge $685,000 in what it said were illicit gains.

Mr. Jarkesy appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans. A divided three-judge panel of that court ruled against the agency on three different grounds, all with the potential to disrupt enforcement of not only the securities laws but also many other kinds of regulations.

In addition to saying that the tribunals ran afoul of the right to a jury trial, the appeals court ruled that the agency’s judges were excessively insulated from presidential oversight and that Congress could not allow the agency itself to decide where suits should be filed.



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